Drinking a bottle of Neumeister wine isn’t just about drinking a bottle of delicious wine. Coming from 30 hectares of organic vineyards — in one of the world’s most challenging regions to farm organically — these are wines that also represent deep courage of conviction.
Farming in this manner means months of sweat, tears and sleepless nights, but when you taste the wines and experience the results that come from these efforts, every moment is worth it for Christoph. He achieves his goal in creating delightful wines, while simultaneously knowing that his vineyards are as healthy as they can be.
LITTLEWINE interviewed Christoph for this article. You can also watch a short video about their harvest in 2018 below.
The Neumeister winery, in Styria, southern Austria, began with Christoph Neumeister’s grandparents. He says,
“There are some wineries that are older than ours, but not many, because almost everything got destroyed during the world wars. Afterwards, people started to come back home. At first, however, the winemaking wasn’t to make a living; it was just to have some wine to drink. Back then, the farms in the region were small mixed agriculture farms. People farmed for their livelihoods, nobody earned money from wine.”
Then, the Buschenschanks began to gain prominence in the wine region of Styria, in southern Austria. A Buschenshank is the Austrian name for a wine tavern, a model whereby farmers are permitted to serve their wines and food on premise. The wine quality, however, wasn’t yet where it is today. Christoph chuckles as he says,
“They also farmed and produced meat to be able to sell the wine, because nobody would drink these sour, acidic wines on their own. But with a good amount of food, they could sell them. Only eventually, over a long period of time, were we able to bottle wine and sell the wine without selling food. That was a major step forward.”
He explains that the wineries of Styria were historically hindered due to their geographic location; there’s no big city nearby, and no key river for transportation. In the early days, their method of transport was by horse or ox, which means the wines didn’t get particularly far. Additionally, bordering the Iron Curtain under communist times meant that the situation in the area was bleak.
In 1985, a scandal hit Austria. It was exposed that some winemakers (particularly in the more northerly regions of Austria) had used the toxic substance diethylene glycol to make their late harvest sweet wines appear even sweeter and more full-bodied. However, as the specialty of Styria is dry white wine, not only were they uninvolved in this scandal, but it also actually ended up working in their favour. Christoph explains,
“Suddenly everybody wanted to drink bone dry, refreshing white wine, and that’s what we had. Everything exploded, and the market grew exponentially. It became very commercial — my family wanted to become successful and to sell wine — this was their chance to get out of the pits! So, they chose to grow.”
This was the moment when money began to come into the area, and hence the quality of wines being produced reached new and unprecedented levels. Cellars were being built and improved, barrels and tanks could be purchased, and the potential for fine Styrian wine was finally being explored.
Christoph’s father is a vegetarian, and he has always been concerned about the environment. As such, he wanted to pursue organics, and tried for a few years, but the very rainy conditions in Styria make it particularly hard to farm organically. As grapes are harvested late into the season — sometimes until late October — there is often a lot of fog. Hence, disease pressure is great, with all types of rot having the potential to wreak havoc if not prevented. As such, an enormous amount of time-consuming manual work is required. So, although working organically was a desire of his, it was put somewhat on the back-burner in order to focus on growing the business, and to make wine of a very high quality.
Christoph finished wine school in 1998, and then travelled to Australia to experience harvest and winemaking in another part of the world, returning to Styria in 2000. Shortly after, friends of Christoph’s father — Maria and Sepp Muster — began farming not only organically, but also biodynamically. Previously, people had said it was impossible to do this in their environment with their tricky growing conditions, but now the Neumeister family realized that it was within reach. However, at 30 hectares, it was going to be a mammoth task for them (at the time, many of the winemakers converting to organics and biodynamics were significantly smaller). Encouraged nonetheless, they began to experiment with organics once again. Christoph says,
“I don’t think that the only way to be successful is to grow. But we already had a large enterprise here, with the vineyards as well as a restaurant and a hotel, and everything was invested in that.”
Working hard to ensure risk was minimized for their family business, Christoph took things day by day, learning the ropes. By 2005, he had begun to take over the winemaking.
“The winemaking is usually the first part you are allowed to get involved in. The vineyard part is the most difficult, as it’s so different every year — there are no books or rules — it’s all about gaining knowledge. So, I learnt from my parents and grandparents.”
He dedicated himself to spending as much time in the vineyards as possible and became more and more dedicated to the notion of organics in his mind.
“In 2008, I began transitioning to organic farming. But I was still unsure about how to do it, and not brave enough, I suppose, as it was such a big enterprise. So, I began with one hectare, and then moved to three hectares, until I was sure I could not only manage it, but also achieve something that was at least as good as before. Growing grapes can be so hard, and I had 14 employees to think about, too. Plus, when you work organically, you must work even more, so you need to take on more employees.”
It was a risky step, and Christoph wanted to make sure that his employees’ livelihoods also were not put in danger. He says,
“For me, to have loyal employees is probably the highest achievement, and we have succeeded in that. I’ve always wanted to be a good boss. All the people that work for us have families, they have kids at home, and this is a difficult job. The transformation of the winery was also about the people’s growth.”
Bravely, he continued on this path. Initially, he had chosen their premium sites to convert (as they are located on slopes with good air flow) in order to have as little disease pressure to overcome as possible. Then, as he gained in confidence, he began to transform other, trickier plots.
“I had to promise my father that if I couldn’t manage it, I’d have to stop. But I never wanted to stop, and I was sure I could do it. But at the same time, I didn’t want to put my ego above the company or the people, so I moved slowly.”
It took years of learning from organic teachers and experimenting with different methods and spray programs, but eventually they succeeded in converting the entire estate.
“It is very, very difficult. With organic farming, you’re constantly working ahead of time, because the methods are preventative. You can’t really cure problems.”
As such, he has invested in specialized tractors, and has a very strict spray regimen.
“As soon as we’re in the period of vegetation, we can’t leave the area, we can’t take holidays, or maybe only two days max. You’re always on the phone. It’s very, very difficult, and we have to be super professional, else we simply wouldn’t be able to harvest any grapes.”
When it comes to vintages, it’s a case of hoping for the best. In difficult years, we can’t even imagine the stress that Christoph experiences. He recalls,
“2020 was so difficult it was unbelievable. You almost say, I’m not going to do this again. I’d have to leave the room and cry for five minutes. But then we have a year like 2021, which was perfect from the start to the end. We have good years and bad years, but that doesn’t affect the quality of the wine, it just affects the amount of work we need to put in. Sometimes, it's 30 to 50% more work, and you harvest 50% less grapes. It seems ridiculous, but it’s totally normal for us — I’m not whining! It’s challenging and fun at the same time, and it really makes you proud at the end. If you manage everything and it works out, well… that’s a good thing.”
We can only say that we’re full of admiration.
With regards to winemaking, Christoph tells us,
“Even though my father wasn’t farming organically, his approach to winemaking was very gentle. He built a gravity flow winery, and was already doing some skin maceration to get more depth, complexity and length.”
After transitioning to organics, the yields decreased, and Christoph noticed that there was more tannic structure, as the grapes were smaller. This means he is very gentle in terms of maceration, in order to maintain elegant styles of wine.
“Elegance is a word we use a lot to describe the mix of moderate alcohol, acidity, tannic structure and juicy drinkability. That juiciness is very typical for the area, if you have 11% or 14% wines, there’s always a mouthwatering juicy element. Everything else is structure.”
While his father had inoculated the wines with lab-cultured yeast, Christoph began working with natural fermentation from 2005, and quickly that became the norm. His approach is very minimal; nothing taken away; only a small amount of sulfites are used. The key thing, he emphasizes, is the picking date: just a two-day window can result in grapes moving from being underripe to overripe.
“As soon as you pick the grapes, that’s it; you’ve worked 11 months for this! If you’ve done your job during those months, there’s not that much more to be done.”
Aside from checking temperatures and deciding on barrel size and oxygen contact, the wines continue their own journey, pretty much uninterrupted.
“If someone comes to the cellar to visit, it seems easy, as we say, we don’t do this, we don’t add that. But to be able to work in this way, you must be very far ahead.”
He is meticulously dedicated to his terroir. For him, this is the quest: to show his place in a bottle, as purely as possible. He says,
“The notion of terroir is extremely important. It means everything to us. We wouldn't be able to sell one bottle of wine if we didn’t work to show our terroir in it.”
It’s a resolute statement from a very determined person. To say we’re in awe of his work and achievements would be an understatement. When we taste the Neumeister wines, all of the fruit of the team’s labour is found in the bottle. These are captivating expressions of Styria, and the Neumeister family’s Sauvignon Blanc wines stand head to head with some of the finest expressions of the variety in the world. All of the sweat and the tears pay off, and knowing how much energy and love goes into each bottle, it is truly an honour to drink these wines.